Dad may not be home, but it’s alright, trust me.
-Blond Blue-Shirt Guy, EarthBound Beginnings
“The following is a contributor post by the Iron Mage.”
I ran into an existential and nearly life-threatening dilemma during the writing of this review for this 25-year-old video game. The thing is, I opted to play both the officially-released EarthBound Beginnings translation, as well as an underlooked and ultimately superior fan-made Mother “remaster” titled Mother: 25th Anniversary Edition (made by the talented DragonDePlatino and his team). It was like the difference between night and day, like having played two distinct works. I felt compelled to write two separate articles for each version, because I had such different experiences with them. But I was missing the point.
The point of me writing on this game over 25 years after its initial release is not to determine if it’s a good game or not, but rather, to spark discussion on its context in the wider setting of digital play, how its heartfelt story might resonate with players across cultures and generations, what its themes are trying to communicate. With the West receiving this game only many years after playing its beloved sequel, I think it’s useful to look at it with one eye to its identity in the present and the other eye to its place in the past. So, despite my experiences being very different during my time with Beginnings‘ two versions, the game, regardless of version, remains the same at heart.
Let’s get this out of the way: EarthBound Beginnings, in its raw form, feels very much like a hollowed-out version of EarthBound for the SNES. Its themes will feel familiar to EarthBound fans, albeit executed rather sloppily and lacking much aesthetic personality. I dare say that the original is only of any use to long-time EarthBound veterans as a historical document and a return to the whimsical tone of Itoi’s trilogy, and it otherwise falls into the long catalog of stereotypical grind-heavy Dragon Quest clones that it attempts to satirize, despite being sprinkled with writing that far surpasses its gameplay. However, the 25th Anniversary Edition remaster makes EarthBound Beginnings feel less like a prototype of its superior sequel, and gives the game its own unique identity or personality, drawing out the best elements of its eccentric and especially charming story.
The 8-bit Review
The typical fantasy RPG narrative of seeking out the four elemental crystals or orbs, which quickly became a trope or a formula in the days of the early RPG due to its simple effectiveness, is trashed, instead becoming a scramble for the protagonist, a young American boy, to seek out the eight melodies of Queen Mary. Lamentably, the whereabouts of these melodies are customarily hidden to the player (with perhaps only the occasional vague hint), and so the player is urged to scour the entirety of the vast world with the hopes that, by some cosmic coincidence, they will happen across the melodies that they so require.
The player is free to discover the melodies in any order they choose, but it still remains a messy task, with there undoubtedly being at least one moment during which a player will scratch their head. I guess we can justify this design choice with my typical slogan: “this is what games were like at the time.” It is scarcely mentioned how the melodies end up in the places that they do or even why the player has to collect them in the first place, but the quest creates an exciting anticipation for what the combined melodic passages will sound like and how they will eventually help—a tension-building reveal that often falls flaccid in other collect-the-crystals JRPGs.
The problem with granting the player so much freedom to collect their required items is that there often ends up being only one “proper” order to do things in, since enemy levels can be all over the place across the game’s vast world. As a result, much of the game’s difficulty ranges from laughably easy to unfairly hard. Anyhow, it isn’t a surprise that an NES RPG forces the player to grind for levels and cash, so maybe we shouldn’t be complaining… And fortunately, the fan remaster eradicates much of the game’s incessant grinding, but again, the free-roaming accessibility of the map ensures that the player will, at some point during their playthrough, encounter a frustrating difficulty spike, in which they may have to return to an earlier area and search for key objects there, or crawl ever-so-slowly forward, always on the cusp of being thrown into the death screen. Perhaps it would be better to restrict the player’s freedom for a more contained and dense experience.
Another layer added to the quest is the search for potential recruitable allies, which is almost always an enjoyable aspect of RPGs, if done well. This is in contrast to some games, in which the player immediately amasses a full party of playable characters at the start of the quest, which usually calls for very bland and rushed character development. Indeed, I can imagine it would be difficult to properly introduce four very distinct characters all at once. In contrast, the introduction of characters in Beginnings is done well. Before recruiting every character, we are introduced to their personality and their background, which will involve rescuing them from some small localized problem, such as saving them from a bully or doing them a small fetch quest. In return, they join our hero Ninten’s quest of their own volition, and become an invaluable partner by bringing useful new abilities to the player’s arsenal of silly real-life weapons, such as toys, bats, and squirt guns.
Unfortunately, gameplay, specifically in the battle system and the game’s usage of conventional random encounters, is where Itoi’s first game falls flat. This is where the monotony of its JRPG-derived nature comes into effect, pitting the player in goofy combat scenarios which grow stale quickly. The random encounter archetype is, honestly, something that mars all story- and adventure-driven games, as they discourage the player from exploring the game world. The gameplay is the facet in which I specifically recommend that players choose the 25th Anniversary Edition remake of EarthBound Beginnings, as it highly improves the game simply by making it easier. The only saving grace for the tedium of the experience are the music and graphics.
Regardless of which version you play, EarthBound Beginnings is both visually and aurally pleasing. The soundtrack references a lot of Western artists that Itoi must have been a fan of, reflecting the American setting, and they translate wonderfully into 8-bit loops. They doubtless made the relentless flow of battle more palatable.
In terms of graphics, while some may not be a fan of the original’s very minimalistic art style, to me it resembles the cutesy style of classic Peanuts comics. The remake simply “modernizes” the pixel art, giving the visuals a more unique personality, which better compliments the most interesting and engaging aspect of the game: the story.
With most games I write about, I would attempt to offer to readers a neat and tidy overview of the plot, but in the case of any of the Mother games, doing so would give people the impression that I’m a rambling drunk and a lunatic. The story in Itoi’s games are messy and filled with the strangest of occurrences, but they’re not necessarily convoluted or complicated. EarthBound Beginnings, characteristic also of its successors, is a game of moments, alleviating emphasis from any macrocosmic moral intentions typical of the coming-of-age story that the Mother games so mockingly embody. Sometimes, the subtlest phrase or understated musing will have made an abstract impression on you in profound ways.
The best comparison I can give you is the feeling that you were a vastly different person after having read a poem or a novel, or perhaps watched a film that particularly moved you. Bite-sized scenes would leave a vague impression on me, like when the protagonist’s father gave me a call in-game thanking me for taking such good care of his son, or when a sentient robot defended me with its life, or when I defeated an evil entity by singing a lullaby from its childhood, or when I got to witness the budding sweet romance unfold between a pair of adolescent characters. Things that seem insignificant to the bigger picture in terms of the save-the-world plot might leave you with a bigger impression than the plot itself. I think that’s exemplary of good writing, of good art. Beginnings especially excels at relating these mundane moments with the player due to its familiar setting in 1980s America.
It begins with a text crawl reminiscent of the prelude to Star Wars:
Imagine the climate of video games during 1989. The RPG is already an international phenomenon, and is a brand new artform exploring brand new fictional worlds. Without a doubt, most of these worlds were of the fantasy or science fiction variety, what with the Dragon Quest Clone Wars running amok. Mythological creatures, magic, space, aliens… But, EarthBound Beginnings’ opening crawl in comparison is so… bland, mundane. There’s something so striking about how mundane it really is, placing the prologue in the 1900s, rural America, and being centered around some unremarkable couple named George and Maria. But the context in which the game exists, amid such a(n over)saturated industry of fantastical worlds, is what makes Beginnings’ opening and subsequent plot so effective and brilliant. Right from the get-go, the player is told that this is something unique, something more personal, something more real than the average RPG.
Making the backdrop of the story so contemporary and (frankly) unremarkable was a bold move by Itoi, even if it might not seem to be in the present year. The norm in video games was (and still is, though to a lesser extent, perhaps thanks to EarthBound!) to take place in worlds fantastic and exotic, separated from our own by great distances both temporally and spatially. This is most prevalent in the RPG genre. If you’re going to be role-playing and be limited only by your imagination, who in their right mind would choose anything other than someplace magical and fantastical? Who in their right mind would say, “yes, I would like to play as some kid in present-day America.” A morally unstable person, that’s who. What is this, a Home Alone: Lost In New York RPG?
It’s how Itoi uses the mundane setting of Beginnings in such an absurd and surreal way that makes it so effective. Indeed, it’s more of a drug-induced representation of what ’80s America would be, and not so much an accurate portrayal, but my point still stands. What exactly is the function of the American setting? I believe it connects to the themes of Beginnings‘ underlying narrative, that this world we inhabit, while it might be crazy, is real. It reflects the creativity and imagination of children, who are the main characters here, and are the lenses we perceive the events of the game through. An underutilized aspect of coming-of-age stories is precisely that: childlikeness. I can remember the fictional worlds I played in appearing so real and mystifying to me as a child. The player in this first entry to the Mother series might be led to wonder if the events that occur are real, or merely hyperbolized or altogether the fictitious figments of the unlikely adolescents who spearhead this quest. This epic quest, whether it transpires in modern America or in the ancient Kingdom of Wizardlandia, is still an epic quest, especially to a kid.
While I did not have the pleasure of playing EarthBound Beginnings during my childhood, I felt very childlike during my experience with it as an adult–the game doesn’t assume that the player is some dumb and impressionable kid, but instead creates such a surreal universe full of oddities and absurdities that one can’t help but feel the same wonder and curiosity that a child would, empathizing with the experiences and challenges that any child would face. In other words, I felt like my 8-year-old self, excited by anything and everything. The typical coming-of-age tropes are there: the loss of innocence, facing one’s fears, growing up, etc., but I don’t think the game really wants you to grow up; in fact, it wants you to treasure and maintain that wide-eyed sense of awe that a child carries innately. Perhaps, the mastermind Shigesato Itoi’s psychology and philosophy shines through here: he is someone who sees the world and the experience of life for how strange and absurd that it is, with all of its social norms and expectations and even all of its unknowns, and he naturally mirrors that in his game. Things just happen–odd things, crazy things, traumatic, life-changing, eye-opening, tear-jerking things–and you are simply along for the ride. A child.
Despite all that, the game isn’t necessarily “anti-adult.” There’s an entire town where all the parents are kidnapped, and children are left to their own devices. Well, those “devices” can lead to sloth, gluttony, chaos à la Lord of the Flies, or just to downright misled (and hilarious) confusion. While nothing actually ends up happening in the town as you save the adults before any amount of hell can break loose, you can deduce from some of the kids’ dialogue what might potentially happen: some of them are undoubtedly lost without the guidance of their parents while others feel like they can do anything without adult supervision. It might seem like a very insignificant detail to extrapolate on, but I think Beginnings muses on how children are the most instinctual, candid, human versions of us. Perhaps EarthBound Beginnings wants us to come to terms with that side of ourselves. What would happen if that innate version of our being wasn’t matured, civilized, socialized out of us? I don’t have an answer, but I’m glad that such an unseemly video game, in such an unseemly virtual town, was able to indirectly urge me to ponder stuff like that.
The mindset of the game is definitively the product of Itoi’s mind. It’s hard to pinpoint why or offer anything in the way of academic citation for this, but art that feels this sincere and heartfelt are often the work of an individual or a small team. There’s something very personal about Beginnings‘ story and characters, as if they are relived reflections of a person’s past experiences. The original title, “Mother” (which I think is much better title), is inspired by John Lennon’s song of the same name, which was a tune that evoked emotion out of Itoi for growing up without his father. I assume the Mother games reflect Itoi’s experiences, such as in the reduction of the protagonist’s paternal character to merely a voice on the telephone. The father’s role is still present and supportive, true, but it exists without any tangible attachment to the protagonist, and is largely superficial, becoming little but the player’s bank machine, money-handler, and save-game mechanic.
It’s interesting to note that Itoi’s career in game development spans only the Mother/EarthBound games, and a single self-titled fishing game. That’s it. This leads me to think that the video game medium was simply one of many canvases for his own emotional expression, to tell a story that could only be told through the video game semiotics of visual feedback and interactivity. Mother, then, is one of the first games to have been written by a writer instead of a game designer. Apparently, Itoi had not only written the main story, but also many of the minor musings that NPCs will say throughout the game, which are scarcely functional or plot-relevant, but exist more as tonal set pieces. Chatting up an NPC is no longer a means to an end, but simply an amusing distraction, a way to stop and smell the roses.
Even being such an early entry into the Japanese RPG catalog, EarthBound Beginnings can still feel like a satire of other RPGs of its time, as if it’s pointing and laughing at video game tropes that hadn’t even yet become tropes. At the very least, it’s incredibly self-aware of its existence as a video game – it tells a story that could only as effectively be told in this medium alone. It carries a certain compelling personality, a charm, as some might say. Once Itoi had felt that he had made his story told, he didn’t feel the need to continue making games for the sake of making games. That integrity, that purity of using art as a means for expression, is one of many things that draws me to the Mother trilogy.
My Personal Grade: 8/10
I think, despite it not reaching as wide an audience as it could have by not being officially localized internationally until 2015, 25 years after it was released in Japan, that EarthBound Beginnings is an important game. It makes an unspoken statement about maturity, artistic integrity and stagnancy, the use of a newborn medium in the video game as a means to express oneself. Not only that, but Wikipedia tells me that Mother had generated interest in video game emulation and the historical preservation of unreleased games. In many ways, EarthBound Beginnings, while it is overshadowed by its successors, is a work of art.
Aggregated Score: 8.8
The Iron Mage, in his natural habitat, is commonly found wielding his weapon of choice: his 8-string guitar. He is fascinated with studying the arts and history through a critical lense, with focuses on new media and ancient literature. His YouTube channel showcases his dedication to writing challenging progressive rock and metal music, as well as experimental rearrangements of video game music.
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